If you ever want to see a brain friendly text book, why don’t you take a quick look at O’Reily’s Headfirst series. I’ve got the CSS and XHTML programming book and totally love it.
So what does this have to do with Grammar?
Lots. Crack open your course book. I’m going to write about the one I use: Market Leader Pre- Intermediate. The average grammar explanation is usually a text box with a quick explanation of the grammar point featured in the unit. During the last few weeks, we’ve been looking at the Present Perfect. Here’s the book explanation:
After each useage explanation, there is a quick sentence showing the tense in action. So there’s an explanation, and then students are to tackle some exercises where they try and use the new grammar rule. (Maybe spotting it in example sentences, in short writing activities etc.) But have we fully included and engaged the brain here?
"The present perfect connects the past and the present. We use the present perfect:
- to talk about past actions that affect us now.
- to talk about life experiences
- to announce news " (pg. 46 Market Leader Pre-Intermediate Business English Cotton, Falvey, and Kent, 2002)
I don’t think so. Perhaps the explanation was enough to survive the incoming exercises which follow, but did your students own the new grammar rule and how it should be used? Are they able to employ the grammar in free conversation later in the class? The next day? The next week? On the exam? In my experience, the answer has been "nope."
A recent post by Katie Methodology Debates From OneStopEnglish.com which points to another article, well worth your time: Debate one: is it possible to teach grammar? by Jim Scrivener, has me thinking: Maybe grammar is often hard to swallow and employ because we, the teachers, have flown right by the brains of our students.
The High Speed Version of what you’ll get if you click through to these posts are best summed up by Katie:
"The gist of this article is: teachers, including experienced ones such as Scrivener himself, deliver decent, engaging, well-prepared, quality lessons – but it takes much more than that to “teach” grammar. He ultimately suggests that doing more reading and listening at lower levels, and waiting for students own interest/noticing/need to arise might well be more effective than focusing explicitly on grammar.
I think what he says makes sense, and fits much of my experience. One difficulty in implementing this though is simply that many students want to be taught grammar and will just not put up with a class or school where they don’t feel they are learning it (or are being taught it) as quickly as they would like. And I believe that while many people do genuinely want to know English and genuinely need to know English, they won’t ever take an interest in “why is … like it this, how do I know.” People who like languages might – but I’d say these people are more likely already to have learned languages however they were taught, and less likely to be clients of a language school later." (Methodology Debates From OneStopEnglish.com)
The Scrivener article really got me thinking about how we should teach Grammar. I’ve had the same experiences Scrivener describes happen in my classes: I put in hard work and prepartion to try and explain a grammar point. We do activities, games, role plays, and even free conversation that encourages the use of the newly presented grammar. For the class, a 1.5 block of time, the grammar seems to "take", but then the next class rolls around, and it’s like the previous lesson never happened.
So how should grammar be taught? Can we be more effective when we present grammar or vocabulary?
I wonder: How often do we simply "blue line" our students by simply walking through the grammar explanation offered by the text? If we were to only follow the book, and most folk do because supposedly the book knows best, we would make the big mistake of thinking that after the text box grammar explanation and following exercises, that the student will have successfully learned.
But doing the "blue line" leaves the brain out of the equation. It encourages constant clock checking (is it time to go yet?) and simply doesn’t work very well at helping students retain content. I think, if we want to become more effective at teaching grammar, for example, we need to learn how to "green line" our lessons. (see the graph above.)
The brain longs for more than just text. Cliff Atkinson points to cognitive research findings and how the brain processes information:
"…cognitive scientists have discovered three important features of the human information processing system that are particularly relevant for PowerPoint users: dual-channels, that is, people have separate information processing channels for visual material and verbal material; limited capacity, that is, people can pay attention to only a few pieces of information in each channel at a time;" (Atkinson, 2004)
Dual-channels: Text box grammar explanations fail to take advantage of the brain’s visual processing abilities = if we only rely on the text explanation, we loose half of our student’s potential to own what we teach.
Limited Capacity: pretty easy to figure out, right? Too much text breaks processing.
So maybe the effective teaching of grammar should include some new features:
- Unexpected images that help illustrate the grammar point you’re working on.
- Humor and Fun - how well do you help students slip into "flow", or a feeling of "play and enjoyment" while they’re working on the rules? (Hint: great pictures can help you do that.)
- 3R’s - Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Don’t try and cover too much at a time. Repeat or Reuse the grammar you’re working on repeatedly during the class, during the week, during the month etc. Go back often to "recycle" previous grammar lessons - it’s not fire and forget!
- Fight for more time in your course work: effectiveness is not about how fast you cover the content, but how deeply. (Think years, not months!)
So yesterday I threw together a few power point slides using creative commons photos from flickr storm. (Here’s one) My objective was to review, reinforce, and encourage ownership of the Present Perfect. Interestingly, at the start of the class, I had a few students tell me that they had to leave early because they had a meeting, so we quickly dove into the material.
Know what happened? The "green line" affect. The pictures did an amazing job of creating interest in what is normally a very uninteresting topic. (Grammar is exciting to linguists perhaps, but to mere mortals such as myself…)
The class was actually fun! Lots of laughter and a sense of play permiated the entire lesson. Our 1.5 hour class flew by, and so did my student’s "important meeting" - they left class 15 minutes later than they should have. But we spent the entire time, having fun…but on target as far as the work was concerned. We had lots of free practice, and opportunities to personalize the target tense. (The slides have little to no information, so students have to do most of the work)
24 hours later, the next class came around. Instead of rolling forward, I put a few slides from the previous class up, just to see if they could use the tense again. It took a few minutes to "warm up" but then they were throwing the present perfect around with ease. Tomorrow I see them again, and once more we’ll reuse the tense as much as we can throughout the class to help encourage ownership.
If you’ve survived all the way to this point in this post, I thank you! I’ve likely been a hard one to follow this time, but this is such a huge and important topic for us to be thinking about as teachers. And this is my own developing thinking on the subject, so I would love to have your input…
Atkinson, Cliff (March 16, 2004). MarketingProfs.com. Retrieved June 14, 2007, from The Cognitive Load of PowerPoint: Q&A With Richard E. Mayer Web site: http://www.marketingprofs.com/4/atkinson10.asp?part=2